Greece demands Elgin Marbles in Brexit trade deal
The British Museum has refused to return the 2,500-year-old sculptures to Greece, which Athens says were stolen by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century when Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire.
However, the London museum said the sculptures, which made up around half of a 160-metre frieze in the Parthenon in the 5th century BC, were acquired legally by Elgin, who purportedly made a deal with the Ottoman colonial authorities.
An EU ambassador involved in trade talks said: “It is a measure of how Brexit has changed the game that the Greeks feel able to use the trade talks to pursue the Elgin Marbles.”
The clause has the support of Cyprus and Italy, which both campaign against the sale of ancient artifacts.
“It is not specifically about the Elgin Marbles but, of course, the claim by Greece is longstanding and the Greek ambassador asked for it,” an EU source told The Times. “London’s auction houses are big traders in ancient and historical artifacts and we want to make sure that if they are stolen they can be returned.”
The British Museum said it welcomed any commitments “to fighting the trade in illicit antiquities across the world”. However, a majority of the priceless works in the museum could be seen as having been obtained by illicit means and the return of the Elgin Marbles would set an unwanted precedent for the institution.
“We work in partnership with law enforcement agencies to identify and help to return objects that come into the UK illegally,” the museum said. “The Parthenon sculptures were legally acquired and help us to tell the story of human history presented at the museum. They are accessible to the 6 million global visitors the museum receives each year.”
If ratified in a future trade and security treaty with Brussels, the UK is expected to receive a Greek demand for the marbles’ return.
Lina Mendoni, Greece’s culture minister, said in January that Brexit strengthened EU support for the case that the marbles were taken from Greece as a “blatant act of serial theft … motivated by financial gain”.
“I think the right conditions have been created for their permanent return,” she said.
The EU also said demanded that non-UK boats be allowed the same access and catches in British fisheries from the end of 2020.
The new demand said it would “uphold existing reciprocal access conditions, quota shares and traditional activity of the union fleet” in British coastal waters after this year’s transition period.
The Elgin Marbles at the British Museum. Picture credit: Wikimedia